Book Review: “The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein” by Franny Moyle

C1629377When we think of famous artists in the 15th and 16th centuries, we focus on the great European masters. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albrecht Durer tend to come immediately to mind. However, one man from Augsburg, Germany, revolutionized how we viewed the Tudor dynasty through portraiture: Hans Holbein the Younger. Many are familiar with his famous works of art and how they influenced how the Tudors have been perceived for centuries, but the man behind the masterpieces has been overlooked. His story and how art was understood in the 16th century is told in Franny Moyle’s latest biography, “The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein.”

Before I read this book, I did not know much about Hans Holbein, the man behind the art. I knew about his masterpieces like his portraits of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII, and The Ambassadors, which I love to marvel at, but the man himself was a complete mystery. When this book was announced, I knew I wanted to read it to learn more about the master Hans Holbein.

Hans Holbein the Younger was from a family of artists; his father was Hans Holbein the Elder, and his older brother Ambrosius were also artisans, but they never reached the level of prestige as the youngest member of the family. Holbein the Younger was willing to break the mold and create art his way. Before finishing his apprenticeship, he signed his artwork and ensured that he was not in debt like Holbein the Elder. Holbein the Younger decided to move to Basel, Switzerland, to make his name. Here, Holbein was introduced to men like Erasmus and the ideas of humanism and Protestantism. It was in Basel where Holbein married Elsbeth Schmidt and started his family.

Holbein did not stay in Basel as he was destined to travel to England to be the painter for King Henry VIII. Holbein’s paintings for Henry VIII and his court are some of the most stunning images in 16th century England. The way Holbein was able to paint his subjects in such a life-like style is astonishing. However, when you pair it with Moyle’s information about Holbein’s circle of friends like More, Cromwell, Erasmus, and Cranmer, it adds depth to his work. The amount of allusions and symbolism in these works of art is astounding, and you can spend hours just analyzing one piece at a time.

It is a spectacular biography that any Tudor or art fan will adore. Franny Moyle has created a vivid image of Holbein’s world that could stand side by side with one of his masterpieces. I purposely took my time to read this book slowly to absorb every minuscule detail that Moyle included about Holbein and his world. I know it is a book that I will personally reread in the future. If you want a definitive and delightful biography about the man behind the canvas, I highly recommend “ The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein” by Franny Moyle.

Book Review: “Cecily Bonville-Grey- Marchioness of Dorset: From Riches to Royalty” by Sarah J. Hodder

60261127._SY475_In history, the stories of women closest to those who sat on the throne tend to shine a bit brighter than others. Their tales give us great insight into how their respective countries were run and how dangerous it could be to marry someone with royal blood in their veins. However, some of the tales get lost in the annals of the past, only to be discovered much later. One of those tales is the story of Cecily Bonville- Grey, the wife of Thomas Grey Marquis of Dorset. In her own right, an extremely wealthy woman, her marriage into the Grey family would help define the succession issue during the late Tudor dynasty. Her story is finally told in Sarah J. Hodder’s latest book, “Cecily Bonville-Grey- Marchioness of Dorset: From Riches to Royalty.”

I want to thank Chronos Books for sending me a copy of this book. I have previously read and enjoyed Hodder’s other books, The Queen’s Sisters and The York Princesses, so I knew I wanted to read it when I heard about this title. I will be honest, I have only heard about Cecily Bonville-Grey from another book about the Grey family, but it was a brief mention, so I was looking forward to reading more about her life.

Cecily Bonville- Grey was the only child of William Bonville and his wife Katherine, the daughter of Richard Neville. Cecily’s uncle was none other than Richard Duke of York. The Bonville men were loyal to King Henry VI, but when the king fell ill, the Bonvilles decided to switch their loyalty during the Wars of the Roses to the Yorkist cause. It was a risky move that would cost William Bonville his life, but in the end, Katherine and Cecily both survived the turmoil of the time. Katherine would marry William Hastings, and Cecily would marry Thomas Grey Marquis of Dorset.

Cecily and Thomas had a large family, and their connection with Richard III and Henry VII would be both rewarding as well as dangerous. With the threats from men like Perkin Warbeck, who wanted to steal the throne from Henry VII, men like Thomas Grey Marquis of Dorset would prove invaluable to refute their claim. Yet it was a double-edged sword as Thomas was often considered a threat to Henry VII. Thomas would die in 1501, leaving Cecily a wealthy widow in need of a second husband, and the man she chose was Lord Henry Stafford. This second marriage allowed the Grey family to flourish and become genuine contenders for the throne, even though that was not Cecily’s intent.

The story of Cecily Bonville- Grey is a delightful read. Sarah J. Hodder shone a light on a woman whose family tends to outshine her. I found Cecily’s story fascinating and gives readers a better understanding of how the transition from the Plantagenets to the Tudors affected those families closest to the throne. Suppose you want another fabulous book about a forgotten woman who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. In that case, you should check out “Cecily Bonville-Grey- Marchioness of Dorset: From Riches to Royalty” by Sarah J. Hodder.

Book Review: “The Forgotten Tudor Women: Gertrude Courtenay: Wife and Mother of the Last Plantagenets” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

59617178._SX318_In any dynasty, those closest to the throne are the most at risk of dealing with suspicions and conspiracies. Those who were not next in line for the throne were seen as threats, especially those whose bloodline was a bit stronger than those who sat on the throne. The Tudor dynasty’s biggest threat was the few Plantagenets who still lived at court. The family that had the most Plantagenet blood in their veins and poised the most significant threat was the Pole family. However, one woman who was very close to Henry VIII and his family married a man who had Plantagenet blood in his veins. Her name was Gertrude Courtenay, the Marchioness of Exeter, and her story is finally getting the light it deserves in Sylvia Barbara Soberton’s latest book, “The Forgotten Tudor Women: Gertrude Courtenay: Wife and Mother of the Last Plantagenets.”

I want to thank Sylvia Barbara Soberton for sending me a copy of this book. I am always looking for new stories from the Tudor dynasty, especially about strong women, so I was intrigued when I heard about this title.

Gertrude Blount (later Courtenay) was the daughter of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, a distinguished humanist scholar and chamberlain to Katherine of Aragon. William would marry one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, Inez de Venegas, and was made a Knight of the Bath by King Henry VIII. As the daughter of such an esteemed gentleman at court, Gertrude received an outstanding education and served Katherine of Aragon as one of her maids of honor.

In 1519, Gertrude married Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter and the first cousin of Henry VIII; his mother was Katherine Plantagenet of York, the younger sister of Elizabeth of York. Gertrude and Henry would stay loyal to Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary through The Great Matter, even when Anne Boleyn was queen; Gertrude was a godmother to Anne’s daughter Elizabeth. Even though Henry Courtenay and his son Edward was seen as a potential opponent to Henry VIII, they continued to curry royal favor.

Gertrude’s life was by no means perfect as she was involved in several scandals, including the one around Elizabeth Barton and the Exeter Conspiracy, which resulted in the death of her husband in 1538. Gertrude and Edward would spend time in the Tower, but fate had another twist to their story as young Edward was seen as a potential husband for Queen Mary I.

The strength and tenacity of Gertrude Courtenay are nothing short of admirable. To survive so many conspiracies and scandals during the Tudor dynasty was nothing short of extraordinary. Soberton’s writing style brings to life Gertrude’s story and illuminates one of the forgotten women of the Tudor dynasty. I hope others will appreciate Gertrude Courtenay’s story as much as I did when they read Sylvia Barbara Soberton’s latest book, “The Forgotten Tudor Women: Gertrude Courtenay: Wife and Mother of the Last Plantagenets.”

Book Review: “John of Gaunt: Son of One King, Father to Another” by Kathryn Warner

52652190Medieval princes are often viewed as men who will one day be king of their homeland or another country. They are seen as wealthy men with prestige and honor who live lavish lifestyles and go to war to earn titles and estates. One of these noble medieval princes was a man who married three times, including to his most beloved mistress. He was the son of Edward III, the uncle of Richard II, and the father of the queen of Castile and King Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would rule in different European countries, even though he never had the chance to wear the crown of England or Castile for himself. His name was John of Gaunt, and his story is told in Kathryn Warner’s latest biography, “ John of Gaunt: Son of One King, Father to Another.”

I want to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. John of Gaunt is one of my favorite Plantagenet figures to study, so when I heard about this title late last year, I was intrigued to read it. I wanted to see what new information Warner would provide in the research of John of Gaunt and his family.

Warner takes her readers on a journey from the birth of the third son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault to his death in 1399. The matter that truly defined John of Gaunt’s life was his connections not only in England but throughout Europe, which Warner explains in great detail. We go on a journey through his three marriages; first to Blanche of Lancaster to become Duke of Lancaster, then to Constanza of Castile, who allowed him to try and fight for the kingdom of Castile, and finally his mistress Katherine Swynford. Katherine Swynford was the mother of the Beauforts who would help create the Tudor dynasty. However, not only his marital connections made Gaunt so well known. As the son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his family was connected to every corner of Europe through marriage. Even though John of Gaunt never became King of England or Castile, his family would fulfill his dream of ruling a kingdom and gaining wealth and prestige.

The will of John of Gaunt, written on the same day of his death, is included in its entirety, showing how wealthy this particular Plantagenet prince was at the time of his death. Unlike other biographies about John of Gaunt, this focuses on his family connections and financial records, Warner’s specialty. However, we tend to view John of Gaunt as a gallant prince. Those who lived in England as peasants considered him the enemy during his lifetime, especially during the Great Uprising in 1381, also known as The Peasants Revolt.

Kathryn Warner has once again illuminated the life of a famous Plantagenet figure through genealogical and financial records. Although he ended up becoming one of the most hated men in England and the enemy to his nephew Richard II, he would go down as one of the fascinating men to study from the Plantagenet dynasty. If you want to learn more about the founding of the Lancastrian dynasty and the rise of the Beauforts through John of Gaunt, I would recommend you read “John of Gaunt: Son of One King, Father to Another, “ by Kathryn Warner.

Book Review: “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris

57165112When we think about men who challenged the Church and are known as Reformers, we tend to think of Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. However, a man fought against corruption in his beloved Florence who should be included in the list of great reformers. He was a Dominican monk who was not afraid to preach against sin and took aim at the most powerful men in all of Italy, including Pope Alexander VII. His sermons were so scandalous that they would lead to his demise upon a pyre in the middle of Florence. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his story is told in Samantha Morris’s latest biography, “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this biography. I read Samantha Morris’s previous joint biography of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I heard that she was writing a new biography about a famous figure in Italian history, I was intrigued.

Girolamo Savonarola was a scholar, like his father and grandfather before him, destined to be a doctor like his grandfather. His plan for his life took a drastic turn when the girl he was fell for rejected his advances, so he decided to join the Dominican order as a friar. Talk about not taking a break-up well. Savonarola studied the Humanist teachings and incorporated them into the way he understood his faith. Of course, as a friar, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he began preaching against corruption and the vices that he saw during his travel.

Savonarola’s preaching was appealing to the people of Florence, yet it did not sit well with the leader of Florence, Lorenzo de ’Medici. Lorenzo tried to silence the troublesome friar, but his son Piero de Medici took on the challenge when he passed away. Piero was nothing like his father and was overthrown as ruler of Florence by Savonarola. Of course, Savonarola was not satisfied with reforming Florence, and he decided to take on the Catholic Church itself and attack another powerful family.

Charles VII of France wanted to conquer Italy, which to the Dominican friar was a good idea, so Savonarola helped the king. This incident drew the ire of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who just wanted the friar to shut up. Even with numerous ex-communications, Savonarola kept preaching against corruption and vices, leading to the Bonfires of the Vanities in 1497. He took artwork and writings deemed inappropriate and burned them in a humongous bonfire. A year later, on May 22, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola lost his life because of his heretic teachings.

This book has so many scandals and dynamic characters that you will forget you are reading a biography. Morris has done it yet again, and this was a brilliantly engaging and extremely well-researched biography. The way she can capture the thrilling world of 15th and 16th century Italy is astounding, and I hope she will write more about Italian history in the future. If you want a fun biography about a man who fought to reform the Catholic Church, I highly recommend you read “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris.

Book Review: “Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the eyes of the Spanish Ambassador” by Lauren Mackay

25266205The story of King Henry VIII and his six wives has been regaled for centuries in different mediums. We love the marital problems of this one English king because of how much of an impact it made on all of Europe in the 16th century and beyond. Yet our love affair with the Tudor dynasty would not have gotten to the point that it is today without the tireless efforts of the ambassadors who went to England to report the news of the day to their respected kings and emperors. We tend to think that the ambassadors are better left in the shadows, working to promote peace between countries and report what was happening, but one man made a name for himself as an ambassador and transcended time. His name was Eustace Chapuys. His story and his mission are finally being told in Lauren Mackay’s brilliant debut book, “Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the eyes of the Spanish Ambassador”.

I have heard about this book in the past and how much of an impact it has made in the Tudor community in the past. I have read Lauren Mackay’s two other books and I have enjoyed them thoroughly and so I really wanted to read this book.

To understand the man behind the now-infamous words about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, we have to go back to Chapuys hometown of Annecy. It is here where we see the Chapuys family rise in prominence to the point where Eustace Chapuys was employed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V as the Spanish Ambassador to England. His main job was to report information back to Charles about the Henirican court as accurately as possible.

Chapuys started his job as ambassador at a critical junction in English history when Henry VIII was in the middle of his divorce from his first wife Katherine of Aragon in 1529. Chapuys admired Katherine of Aragon’s strength and worked tirelessly to protect her daughter Mary. Since Chapuys had a close connection to those who were essential in the Tudor court, he has given historians fabulous insights into these tumultuous times. It was really his relationship with Anne Boleyn which has caused a lot of controversy over the years and has blackened Chapuys’ name for centuries. Mackay has masterfully examined Chapuys’ correspondences to uncover the truth about how he felt about the Tudor court from 1529 until 1545.

You cannot separate Tudor history during the reign of Henry VIII and the works of Eustace Chapuys, which is why this biography and Mackay’s research are so essential in understanding the 16th century. It sheds new light on the stories of Henry VIII and the lives of his six wives; Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Chapuys was not afraid to speak his mind and to share the rumors of the day, which gives us significant insight into how the royal family was perceived by their public, both the positive and the negative aspects.

Eustace Chapuys has been one of those ambassadors who we think we know, but do we really? Mackay has rescued the much-maligned messenger of Charles V and restored him to the glory that he so rightfully deserves. Chapuys’ story was hidden in plain sight, but it took an extraordinary historian to bring his story to the spotlight. If you think you know about Eustace Chapuys and the Henrician court, you need to read this sublime biography, “Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the eyes of the Spanish Ambassador” by Lauren Mackay. It might change how you view the Tudor dynasty.

Book Review: “Elizabeth I’s Last Favourite: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex” by Sarah-Beth Watkins

56283014A man who was young and had charisma would attract the attention of the Virgin Queen herself, yet that attention came with a price. The young man could not do what he desired and was buried in debt. His anger could not be quenched and he would end up rebelling against the very queen who brought him so much glory and honor. This rebellion would lead to his execution. The man’s name was Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and his story is told in Sarah-Beth Watkins’ latest bite-size biography, “Elizabeth I’s Last Favourite: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex”.

I would like to thank Chronos Books for sending me a copy of this book. I had heard that Sarah-Beth Watkins was releasing this book around the same time that Tony Riches released his novel about Robert Devereux, so I thought it might be nice to read about this man through fiction and nonfiction.

The son of Walter Devereux and Lettice Knollys, Robert Devereux was destined to his father’s heir when he passed away. However, when Walter died, he left his young heir a mountain of debt. His mother would remarry, but her choice would cause her to be an enemy of the queen herself. Lettice Knollys married Elizabeth I’s most prized favorite at court, Robert Dudley. The legacies that Robert’s mother and father left him forced the penniless earl to think big and to strive to gain the queen’s favor.

His looks helped win the queen’s favor, but Robert wanted more. He wanted power, money, and military prestige, which was typical of an earl during the Tudor time. However, Robert was pretty terrible at being a military leader. No matter if it was in France, Spain, or Ireland, Devereux managed to fail on his missions and irritating the queen. Watkins included transcripts of poems and letters that Devereux and Elizabeth I exchanged and you can feel the anger and frustration centuries later. Devereux comes off as a spoiled brat who whined when he didn’t get his way and Elizabeth just continued to exasperate him.

Devereux would redeem himself slightly when he uncovered a plot by Elizabeth’s doctor Lopez to assassinate the queen with poison. Yet for the most part, the queen was almost always upset with the young man, which made him act recklessly. Although he did marry the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, he was known to have a few mistresses and illegitimate children on the side. When he was really upset with the queen, he would break into her chamber or he would sulk at home feigning illness until she would beg for him to come back to court. This was his routine until he was pushed over the edge and would stage a rebellion against the woman who raised him so high, ultimately leading to his own demise.

.Robert Devereux was the moody last favorite of Elizabeth I who depended too heavily on her influence to guide his life choices. Watkins does a very good job at portraying Devereux’s numerous attempts to change his fate and how he failed miserably. The length of this biography was reasonable and it did allow readers to get to know the truth about the young man who would be the final favorite. If you want a short biography about the man behind the Essex Rebellion, you should check out, “Elizabeth I’s Last Favourite: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex” by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

Book Review: “The Real Leonardo da Vinci” by Rose Sgueglia

57165143A man ahead of his time who never finished the tasks that he was given as his mind was constantly racing, thinking of new ideas. This is what we consider a genius or a Renaissance Man today, but during Leonardo da Vinci’s time, it was just considered odd. Leonardo da Vinci was an enigma. He could make the impossible possible. His art seemed to leap off the canvas with its realism. However, there are still so many mysteries surrounding his life and his works. What made this one artist/inventor so fascinating for centuries? In her book, “The Real Leonardo da Vinci” Rose Sgueglia opens the curtain to reveal Leonardo da Vinci’s truth and inner circle.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I am one of those people who is familiar with da Vinci’s works, but not so much with his actual life and what made him tick. I have always wanted to read biographies about the great artists of the Renaissance, but I didn’t know where to start. This was the perfect book to start my journey into art history.

To understand da Vinci’s lifestyle later in life, we have to understand his origins. His mother was an absent figure in his life as Leonardo was her illegitimate son, but his father seemed to have taken care of him. Leonardo was trained under Verrocchio where he would learn the skills that would be vital for his art career, however, it was his insatiable appetite for exploring new subjects that would make him a polymath to many.

Sgueglia dives into the intricacies of da Vinci’s life, including his love life which has been debated for centuries. As an illegitimate son, he was not tied down to one location so he frequently traveled and would be employed by some of the greatest families in Italy, including the Borgias, the Medicis, and Ludovico Sforza. Along the way, he would create his own following of artists that were loyal to him until the bitter end. Da Vinci would also encounter fellow masters Donatello and Michelangelo as he competed for commissions.

I think Sgueglia does a decent job introducing the Leonardo da Vinci that she has gotten to know through her research. She also included interviews between her and a researcher of the Mona Lisa as well as the director of a movie about Leonardo da Vinci within this book, which I found fascinating. I think it is these interviews and including the transcripts as part of the book that sets it apart from other biographies about Leonardo da Vinci.

There were a few things about this book that I found a bit off or lacking. My big concern was the lack of illustrations of his lesser-known pieces of art and the artwork of other artists that Sgueglia references. If this is a biography about a well-known artist and inventor, then let’s celebrate the masterpieces and the inventions. I had to find the obscure artworks online while I was reading to act as a companion to get the full impact of what she was writing about. I also think it was a tad repetitive and I would have personally liked to have seen more books in the bibliography for research purposes.

Overall, I found this book was an adequate biography about Leonardo da Vinci. It is easy to read with intriguing facts that will captivate those who are new to da Vinci’s story. There is something intriguing about looking at the man behind these masterpieces and I think Sgueglia does an excellent job of showing a unique side of this artist’s life. If you want a great book that will introduce you to this polymath’s life and times, I recommend you read, “The Real Leonardo da Vinci” by Rose Sgueglia.

Book Review: “The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival” by Kate Williams

40554521Two cousins fighting for the right to rule England during the 16th century. One was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn who fought tooth and nail to rule without a man by her side. The other was the daughter of Mary of Guise and King James V of Scotland whose marriage record would prove to be fatal. Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, may have been sister queens, but the way they were treated in their own countries differed completely. While Elizabeth I was praised and protected from harm in England, Mary was a scapegoat for so many in Scotland. The way that Mary was used as a pawn even though she wore a crown was nothing short of extraordinary. The story of how these two queens came on a collision course that would leave one queen beheaded and the other forever changed has been told in many different ways from both sides of the tale, but it has rarely been told as a cohesive nonfiction book. That is until Kate Williams’ marvelous biography, “The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival”.

Before we get to the part of the tale that many Tudor fans know very well, the end of the tale, we must understand what shaped Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots to be the queens of England and Scotland respectfully. As someone who knows quite a bit about Elizabeth I’s story, I found Williams’ explanation of her childhood informative and relatively brief.

Williams chooses to focus on the much-maligned Mary, Queen of Scots. We tend to assume that Mary’s life as a pawn with a crown began after her first husband, King Francis II of France, tragically died and she had to go back to her native Scotland. However, Mary was a pawn in someone else’s game her entire life. The only man that Mary loved and who loved her back was Francis. Her other relationships with Darnley and Bothwell were trainwrecks that would cause Mary immense pain and sorrow. Bothwell was the epitome of a disastrous relationship that was doomed to ruin Mary’s life. The two people who Mary thought she could depend on, Elizabeth I and Mary’s own son King James VI, ultimately chose to save face than to help protect a queen who had nowhere else to go.

I will be honest and say that before I read this book, I felt that Mary was the villainess of Tudor propaganda. She, after all, was wanting to dethrone Elizabeth I so that she could become the Catholic Queen of England. I have always been someone who has been a big fan of the reign of Elizabeth I, so I assumed that I would not be a fan of Mary, Queen of Scots. However, that all changed after reading this book. To see Mary put her faith and trust into those who she thought had her best interest at heart and to be betrayed every single time was utterly heartbreaking.

This is a gorgeously written biography of Mary, Queen of Scots that shows Mary in a sympathetic light while portraying how cataclysmic the numerous betrayals she endured affected her life. It was my first time reading a biography about Mary, Queen of Scots, or a book by Kate Williams, and I have to say it is one of my favorite biographies that I have read so far this year. I did not want to stop reading this biography. It made me feel so sympathetic towards Mary and her plight. If you want an exceptional biography about Mary, Queen of Scots, “The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival” by Kate Williams is a must to have in your collection.

Book Review: “The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster” by Helen Carr

55710502When one studies the history of the English monarchy, we tend to consider those who ruled and those who advised the ruler as significant characters. We rarely study the family members of the monarch who did not win the right to rule the kingdom. Yet, they are often either extremely loyal or they desire the crown with such ferocity that they rebel against their own family. It seems like a rather cruel world, but that was the life of a medieval monarch. True loyalty for one’s family was a rare feat. One man showed the depth of his loyalty to his family, even when the people despised him. He was the son of King Edward III, the brother of the famous Black Prince, the uncle of King Richard II, and the father of Henry Bolingbroke who would become King Henry IV. Gaunt’s reputation and legacy have been marred by his wealth and the role that he played with the Peasants’ Revolt, but was he such a bad person? In Helen Carr’s brilliant debut biography, “The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster”, she looks to uncover the truth about the man behind the throne and why he never desired the crown for himself.

Carr has chosen to call John of Gaunt “The Red Prince”, which makes a lot of sense for someone who understands the significance of his legacy in history. His son by his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, King Henry IV, was the first Lancastrian King of England. Obviously, they were represented by the red rose in the rather poetic sounding Wars of the Roses in the 15th century and their half-siblings, the Beauforts (who were descended from the children of John’s third wife and former mistress Katherine Swynford) would continue the legacy in their own way. There would be no Lancastrian Kings of England or Wars of the Roses or Tudor dynasty without John of Gaunt.

I am getting a little ahead of myself. After all, during John of Gaunt’s lifetime, none of this happened. He was just the son of Edward III and the brother of the Black Prince when he earned the title of the first Duke of Lancaster. He earned his reputation as a loyal soldier fighting alongside his brother and father in the conflict with France that would be known in history as the Hundred Years’ War. His loyalty to his brother and father and his bravery as a knight was legendary. He gained vast amounts of wealth from his marriages to Blanche of Lancaster and Constance of Castile. He was a patron of the arts, especially to Geoffrey Chaucer, and championed those who wanted to challenge the way religion was understood during the 14th century.

He had everything he could ever want until his world came crashing down around him. The Black Prince died of illness and his father King Edward III would soon follow, leaving the throne to his nephew King Richard II. To say things got off to a rocky start would be an understatement as John of Gaunt and other government officials were accused of raising taxes so high that it triggered what we know as the Peasants’ Revolt. On top of all of the problems in England, John of Gaunt decided to become King of Castile with his wife Constance. John of Gaunt led a life full of adventure, risks, and above all, loyalty to his family.

Carr does a magnificent job of bringing Gaunt’s life into focus. So much of his reputation has been tainted over time, but Carr did not shy away from the challenge. This is one of the best biographies that I have read this year so far. John of Gaunt deserved to have his story retold and Helen Carr was the perfect historian to tell his story for a newer generation. Carr’s writing style is engaging with meticulous attention to detail. This is a gorgeous debut biography and I cannot wait to see what Helen Carr will write next. If you want to read a biography about the founder of the Lancastrian dynasty, “The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster” by Helen Carr is a must-read.